What makes Messiah complexes so complex?
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great… because he poured out his life unto death… (Isaiah 53:12)
Hi all, this is the first in a new blog series where I’ll be jotting down some elaborations on recently reviewed New Who episodes that play with religious themes (hence, ahem, Pew Pew Pew). No time to pity-chuckle now, because here we go!
What happens when you have a complicated or outright hostile relationship with religion, but as a TV showrunner you inherit a lead character who’s a messianic figure? Not only that, he’s positively Jesus-like: a fluid mix of humanity and some superior element, who has come to exemplify, even personify, the selfless sacrifice, laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Maybe you want the bits of religion that make for great stories, but also you might feel you can do better. Throw into the mix regular Christmas specials and a public broadcaster in a broadly Christian-ish country, and I would argue the result is much of the confusion or self-contradiction at the heart of New Who under Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. And in A Town Called Mercy, two big, persistent issues come to the fore.
If you want to slightly ruin Doctor Who for yourself, see this TV Tropes list to get a sense of the utter ubiquity of the Heroic Sacrifice trope in New Who especially. Just in A Town Called Mercy we have both Isaac and Kahler-Jex doing a life drop. It must take some frantic juggling of the dramatis personae to avoid a scene where Rory’s trying to sacrifice himself for Amy, while fighting off Amy trying to sacrifice her plus Doc for Rory, as Doc’s desperately dialling up the sonic setting that’ll sacrifice himself for both of them, before Harriet Jones of all people pushes her way to the front, cries ‘Harriet Jones, Prime Christ substitute!’ and immolates herself in the nearest vat of whatever for the good of humankind.
Mercy, mercy me; the show’s cheapened the move to the point of invisibility. I can remember a smidgen of surprise that Guido was so altruistic in Vampires of Venice (another Toby Whithouse episode) and of course Rory’s constantly and ostentatiously dying, but I feel like in our reviews we’ve mostly been blind to this increasingly red thread. Father Octavian from Flesh and Stone didn’t make even the TV Tropes list! One could say it’s been done to death…
And setting repetition aside, on a purely analytical level, characters making Jesus-like sacrifices are unlikely to satisfy for multiple reasons. (a) We may not even notice them, because the character’s that marginal or their purpose was only to move the plot along. (b) If they’re treated to some development, their arcs rarely lead naturally to their final action. (c) On some level, to some extent, still percolating among the collective subconscious, Western society has its own foundational model of the perfect sacrifice. One where the candidate (the Son of God), the motivation (redeem humanity) and the justification (God’s infinite love for fallible fleshlings) are all ideal. You could say the apple never falls far from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So all imitations are bound to fall short in some way, or at least come off as a bit cheap.
To start small: Isaac throwing himself in front of the Gunslinger’s cannon seemed stupid because it didn’t consider the next move, which as Jim pointed out, should have been the Gunslinger immediately reloading and finishing the job. So Isaac was an unacceptable substitute, looked idiotic for not considering any of this, and ultimately the berk he saved killed himself anyway, so his gesture was for naught.
Said berk Kahler-Jex’s sacrifice didn’t add up either; it was a groundless U-turn. His talk with the Doctor, while temporally parallel with Jesus’ appeals to God in the Garden of Gethsemane to be spared crucifixion (and its attendant weight of sin, if not souls), utterly lacked the crucial character development that would propel him to do what he least wanted to. He ends the scene sneering at The Doctor’s morality. Matt Smith’s turn as a God who actually answers in this situation sort of fits the bill: Jesus doesn’t get to decide for Himself when and where to die, He must be obedient to justice’s demands. But this is beside the point if Jex doesn’t admit his submission to justice, either legally or morally. A bit of flannel about sparing races on other planets (mostly uninhabited by intelligent lifeforms, surely?) is as good as we get.
I’ll reheat this point in future instalments, but if for whatever reason you’re trying to outdo religion, go for it, but you have to do it properly. Any less perhaps betrays a lack of understanding or ability.
Let’s briefly add a few more relevant examples to our pot. Nobody’s ever been keener than Rory to volunteer for a kill-shot, first at the end of Cold Blood – although there he thought he was guaranteed a wave back across the valley in his hill-walking middle-age. Regardless, he returns. As did Captain Jack (whose alter-ego got another altar go in Gridlock). As did Gandalf. As did Kenny after the South Park movie. So resurrection’s a common trope now too. If a show or a Cinematic Universe invests enough in a character and is sufficiently sentimental, odds are they’ll be brought back somehow. Maybe ease off the device then, before the returns diminish – or actually, so that the returns diminish. Oh hi, Strax. Great to have you back. Wait, you know why Grace’s return in It Takes You Away carried emotional heft? Because she stayed dead.
This leads us to The Doctor – who can’t stay dead or we’d have no show, or worse, they’d have to bring back Class. Doc can’t emulate a sacrifice on Christ’s level because even if he throws himself in harm’s way (as he does for Rose, and Wilf, and… Christmas?), he won’t die at all, he’ll regenerate – only the revelation of how can be deferred. I grant you, Moffat’s chucked some fine spanners in the works: a second shot that appears to seal the deal at Silencio, or when Eleven appeared to be out of regenerations on Trenzalore. But these are only temporary and often as not the chicanery leaves a sour taste later.
In conclusion, you can use shorthand in signalling that sacrificing yourself for the sake of others is the highest virtue, but don’t short-cut to it or it’ll short-circuit your story and get short shrift from my short temper. And it’s better when The Doctor’s messianic parallels and ‘lonely god’ schtick are abandoned in favour of being an amazing alien because, and I admit I may be slightly biased on this score, you can’t beat Jesus.
OK, that’s my tuppence. If you’ve anything to add on the subject, maybe from the perspective of your faith or philosophy, pop in a comment below! And next time on Pew Pew Pew: that second big, persistent issue…
Side note: I was editing a yearly devotional this week and the writer of a particular entry opined that witnessing Jesus’ ministry must have been ‘a bit like being one of Doctor Who’s helpers’. Well well! I was tempted to edit this to ‘companions’ – my instant reaction was, ‘Oh dear, poor author, let me help disguise the lamentable truth of your ignorance.’ But then I thought, well, do they only mean companions? Are the companions only the ones who have flown in the TARDIS, whose actors’ and actresses’ names appear in the title sequence? By excluding mere helpers, am I going to enrage all the Guardians of the Canon? So in the end I changed it to ‘companions or helpers’ to echo the distinction between apostles and mere disciples. Bonus: I got to be a bit CofE in trying to please everyone. This decision ultimately took me five whole minutes to make. This is genuinely my life.